The past fights cancer of the future
Four years ago, Pilu Oberoi, a 38-year-old schoolteacher in New Delhi, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery and radiation therapy and also approached the Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute in Delhi, which gave her selected herbs to relieve her of the horrendous side-effects of radiation. "I would recommend Tibetan medicine to anyone," says a rejuvenated Oberoi.
Fortysix-year-old Budh Prakash, who was suffering from multiple myeloma, was given autologous bonemarrow transplant at the Indian Rotary Cancer Hospital in New Delhi. He says that apart from his alleviating his physical ailments, the doctors could not help him with his emotional stress. "It was Yoga and pranayama (breathing exercises) which helped me regain my composure," he says.
PRACTITIONERS of traditional medicine have always held that stress and diet are the main sources of disease. Today, cancer research is frenetically examining these links. So far, however, while traditional medicine has it that building up immunity and mental wellbeing are imperative for a cure, a herbal cure for cancer remains dismayingly out of grasp.
Says V Kochupillai, director of the Indian Rotary Cancer Hospital (IRCH), "Patients drop out of cancer treatment because of the harsh side-effects. While nausea and vomiting can be controlled with drugs, there is no remedy for hair loss, which leads about 5 to 10 per cent of women patients to drop out. Bone marrow toxicity (a chemical-induced red and white blood cells count fall) is worrisome. We would rather look at natural methods than pump in more chemicals."
Kochupillai says she is interested in using naturopathy and Yoga: "I am sending a few patients with low-grade cancers for Yoga on an experimental basis." Says IRCH oncologist Lalit Kumar, "Plant-based medicines like taxol -- derived from the Himalayan and Pacific yew tree -- and vinka alkaloids from the vinka rose, are used for chemotherapy. We are interested in identifying the active ingredients in herbal medicine. For instance, garlic and turmeric, used by Ayurveda practitioners, are perceived as having anti-cancer properties."
Tsewang Tamdin, a doctor at the Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute in New Delhi, maintains that an "imbalance of the 3 humours -- phlegm, bile and wind -- leads to illness." Tibetan medications like Ruta 6 for nausea, Agar 15 to build immunity and Sheru for vomiting, are made from herbs procured from the higher reaches of the Himalayas and are prescribed to cancer patients. Tamdin says that these herbs have no side-effects, but he also does not discourage patients from opting for conventional cures: "Patients are usually terrified of chemotherapy and radiation. Medicine taken in this state will not help. Sick people need reassurance and encouragement".
Medicine hot and cold According to the Tibetan system, medicines are either "hot" or "cold". "Our medicines work to boost the immune system and thereby eliminate the disease," says Tamdin. Every 6 days, a "precious pill", a mix of several herbs, is given. This acts as a tonic and helps build immunity. "We observe the patient's lifestyle, diet and the condition of the cancer," says Tamdin. "Medicine is normally given for a week. We then wait for some feedback before proceeding."
Tamdin relates many stories about terminally ill patients who benefited from Tibetan medicine. But, he admits, "Sometimes our medicines don't work on certain patients, whose illnesses are linked to Karma." But there is an antidote for this, he says: "Patients must accept their condition and correct themselves through good deeds. We can make their lives comfortable through medicine and, in some cases, even prolong it."
Naturopathy and Yoga are derived from the ancient science of Ayurveda. Says Sneha Chatterji, who teaches a course in naturopathy at Delhi's International School for Nature Cure and Yoga, "If we do not obey nature's laws, we can get cancer. In naturopathy, there has to be a perfect balance between the 5 elements -- space, air, fire, water and earth. Toxins collect when there is an imbalance between them. If the imbalance is not corrected with the help of fasting, enema and raw diet, one becomes prone to cancer."
Chatterji recommends strict vegetarianism for cancer patients undergoing conventional treatment. This diet should have a high proportion of raw organic food and the intake of salt and sugar must be low. First, patients must fast for a day and sit with their back to the sun which, Chatterji says, is a natural antitoxin. The next 4 to 5 days, the patient should eat only juicy fruit like orange, grape, apple, pineapple, carrot and tomato. Then, an exclusive diet of natural food, consisting of carrot, cabbage, leafy vegetables, asparagus, garlic and high-quality proteins like almond, millet, sesame seeds and sprouted bean, is recommended. Says Chatterji, "Brewer's yeast builds the body's resistance and strengthens cells. The juices of radish, pumpkin and basil are energisers."
For mouth sores associated with conventional cancer therapy, a rinse of boiled neem water helps and for hair loss, Chatterji recommends a diet high in Vitamin B and half a litre of spinach juice daily. The scalp should be rubbed with a mixture of coconut oil boiled with dry amla. For nausea and vomiting, ginger juice mixed with water and black pepper or a blend of tulsi (basil), black pepper and lemon juice, is effective. "Drink 10 to 12 glasses of water every day and avoid black coffee and non-vegetarian food," she advises.
Diet and disease
Says Kochupillai, "There is growing evidence about the links between diet and disease." Lalit Kumar says, "Naturopathy can be useful in cancer of the abdomen." Researcher Sarwat Sultana of the Department of Nutrition Toxicology at New Delhi's Jamia Hamdard University says that 5 herbs afford protection against cancer-causing carcinogens -- kasni (Cichorium intybus), amarbel (Cuscuta reflexa), kutki (Picrorhiza kurrooa), banafshah (Viola odorata) and isharmul (Aristolochia indica). Turmeric (Curcuma domestica) is also effective. Abdul Hameed, an 89-year-old Unani hakim (traditional doctor) of the university, maintains that hatisura (Heliotropium indicum) has anti-cancer properties.
Saroj Modi, a practitioner of Yoga and meditation, says that mental and emotional problems are major causes of cancer. Stress suppresses the immune defence system and allows cancer cells to reproduce themselves into life threatening tumours. Explains Lalit Kumar, "In layperson's terms, stress releases steroids in the body which are called catecholamines, which deplete the lymphocytes and the natural killer cells that help fight infection. This leads to lowered immunity and makes a person more prone to chronic illness. Yoga could work wonders because it reduces stress."
Modi stresses on the "Pranic Energisation Technique". She says, "Our body is ensconced in 5 sheaths. The physical frame, called annamaya kosa, is followed by the pranamaya kosa, which contains energy called prana. Prana flows through channels called nadis to the physical body. Mental agitation results in fluctuations in the flow of energy in the nadis. This results in illness."
The pain from cancer can be fought through Yoga and autosuggestion and nausea through deep relaxation. The mind must be set at ease and the energy flow restored to normalcy. The patient is asked to feel the flow of energy first through the nose and then through the rest of the body. "Gross sensations will be followed by finer sensations", says Modi. "Through this method, the patient learns to detach the mind from the body and visualise pain. This can prop the immune system back to normalcy." Simple asanas (postures) also increase the elasticity of muscle fibres and release tension and stress.
"Ayurveda can cure cancer," claims A K Gupta, a practitioner of this system, who has written a dissertation on cervical cancer. He says, "Ayurveda emphasises on the total personality of the patient. We believe that the tridoshas (3 faults) control all biological processes: Vata, Pitha and Kapha. Earth and water rule Kapha, fire rules Pitha and air and ether rule Vata. Normally, the 3 are in harmony, but an imbalance results in illness."
Gupta says that people can be dominated by one of the tridoshas. The Vata personality is talkative, prone to dry skin and sensitive to nervous illnesses. The Pitha personality cannot tolerate heat, usually has a good digestive system but is prone to skin disease and allergies. It is the 3rd personality type, Kapha, which is more prone to a disease like cancer.
He says, "People should eat according to their personality and the weather. Wrong diet affects the digestive system and leads to accumulation of toxins. Ayurveda prescribes shodhan (detoxification). This is done through dieting. A vegetarian diet high in minerals should be eaten and the blood should be purified through medicines which contain herbs like pit papara (Fumeria officinalis) and mundi (Sphaeranthus indicus). Last, the body's immune system should be strengthened to fight the cancer with plants like adumbar, varun, rihitak, haritaki and suhajna."
The problem with all these cures is that a convivial marriage between tradition and modernity still arouses suspicion. Says Lalit Kumar, "Only the Chinese have managed to integrate them. Here in India, the streams of medicine have remained apart."